As I sit here contemplating what to write about for this month’s issue of FishMonster Magazine, a cool breeze blasts through the open window next to me. It is a comfortable, brisk north wind in the neighborhood of 25 mph and gusty. The temperature this morning is in the mid 60’s. These conditions are the result of a strong cold front that passed through last night leaving behind a much welcomed cooler weather pattern. Though I feel for those up north who are feeling the wrath of this same cold front with bone chilling temperatures and snow. It has been a very warm winter thus far with only a couple of days under 70 degrees and one day under 60.
I took a glance at previous articles I wrote around this time and I always seem to mention tarpon and bonefish while discussing weather patterns. Basically, if we get a calm, warm spell between cold fronts, tarpon will move in to the area and possibly even into shallow enough areas where we can pole and sight fish for them. And, since it has been such a warm winter and tarpon have been around, I figure this is as good a time as any to dedicate an entire article to fishing for tarpon during the cold months of the year.
By now everyone who pays attention to flats fishing and saltwater fly fishing knows about the annual spring tarpon migration. It is highlighted in many of the major fly fishing and saltwater fishing magazines on the market today. And many a blogger, Tweeter, Instagrammer and Facebooker have posted thousands of photos and articles dedicated to the Silver King. The major part of the spring tarpon migration occurs between the months of April and June, with the pinnacle of the migration occurring around the new and full moons at the end of May and the beginning of June. This also happens to be when the palalo worm hatch takes place and some other minor hatches occur.
What many folks don’t realize, is that here in Key West, we have tarpon available to us year round. There is a resident population of tarpon that remains in the area as evidenced by their presence in many of the marinas and residential canals of Key West and the Lower Keys. Most of these tarpon are smaller, ranging from babies that are a few pounds up to mid-sized fish of about 70 pounds. Big 100+ pound tarpon are here also, but not nearly as many as we would see in the spring.
Where do we find these winter tarpon?
A very important question indeed and one that I often top with, when? That is more important. The when and the where go hand-in-hand, which is why we guides will put 50-100 miles on our engines in a day to find fish. We don’t do it to kill time or because we love to just drive around and not fish, it is often out of necessity to find light or get away from a storm. Mostly it is because we want to be in an area at a certain time during the day and tide stage. There are many days when we can string these spots together moving from one to the next to give our anglers the best opportunity possible. But I digress.
Let’s start with the where?
Winter tarpon aren’t just anywhere and everywhere like many other species we chase on the flats. Tarpon are a tropical fish species that prefer a warm and stable environment. The most stable environment for tarpon is deep water, which is where they will go when conditions dictate. The deepest water near Key West is in Key West Harbor and tarpon will seek refuge here when the weather changes for the worse. If we experience a strong enough cold front that leaves behind a cold and windy high pressure system, the water will cool too quickly and tarpon will head offshore until conditions stabilize.
The first place I start looking for tarpon is in and around Key West Harbor when conditions allow. This is deep water so fishing with live bait is most productive. As conditions improve, I will expand my range looking in the shallower channels and nearby basins. This is where we can sight fish and consider using artificial lures and flies.
OK, we know where to look for tarpon this time of year. Fairly straight forward right? But as it goes, not a guarantee. So now when do we look for tarpon in the winter months? This is where it gets tricky and the ability to predict the weather can really payoff. We will have a very small window of opportunity between cold fronts to fish for tarpon this time of year. We need a specific set of conditions over a few days in order to get these tarpon where they need to be for us to fish for them.
Behind a cold front is a high pressure system that includes cold air and wind. Not ideal for tarpon fishing, and it’s not even a thought at this point. As the high pressure system moves off, the wind will start to clock around to the east and the air will warm up a bit. Now I’m starting to think about tarpon, but I’m not too excited yet. The east wind is usually strong and will slow the warming process, but the water will warm and if it lasts long enough, we will see some tarpon in deep water. A couple days pass and the wind will slacken and clock around to the southeast. Now I am excited. The southeast breeze is warm and humid, good for tarpon fishing. The shallow water surrounding the Keys will warm very quickly during the day, several degrees in fact, and get to that magical range of 75-80 degrees that tarpon prefer.
We will need 3-5 days of calm, warm east and south wind to get the proper water conditions for tarpon to make their move into the shallows. If this happens and we have plenty of sunshine and decent tides, we are in for some spectacular fishing. But as I stated, this is a small window of opportunity. We might get a day or two with tarpon around before the next cold front passes by and once again moves these fish out of the shallows and back to deep water where conditions are more stable. As winter progresses into spring we will have longer periods in between cold fronts and more opportunities to fish for tarpon until the last cold front can make it all the way to the Keys in April when we begin to primarily fish for those migratory schools of large tarpon moving through the Keys.
If you are a Keys resident or someone fortunate enough to have a very flexible schedule, love to fish for tarpon and can travel at the last minute, keep an eye on the weather. If you see a stretch of warm, calm days headed our way get on the phone to your favorite flats guide and schedule some days, you will be in for some great fishing.
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